It was over. And, like everything else during my six months in Germany in 1992, this was both good and bad.
This was good in that I would be returning to my actual home back in the U.S. (There was a small issue with this that I’ll address momentarily.) They had only heard from me periodically – this was well before e-mail, Facebook, and other current ways to stay in contact with family 24/7.
I had sent plenty of postcards and letters. I had made a few phone calls. But that had been it. Now I could see them again and begin to try to tell them everything I had seen and done.
Getting ready to leave was also bad, because I was leaving a place that had become home. Well, seven homes, to be exact.
For six months, I had lived with seven families and, with varying degrees of success, became a part of those families for nearly three weeks at a time.
In what seemed like a cruel little farewell from the German program, we had a few final days of travel time in the country before we had to report back to the airport and head to the U.S. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be cruel, but it sort of was, because I had seven families that I wished I had time to go back and see one last time.
To do that, I figured I would need, oh, about six months.
So I did a very short farewell tour, stopping first at family #5, the Glüsing-Lüerβens and their two energetic kids.
I was able to practice something that I would have to do a lot after returning to the U.S. – trying to put six months into a short conversation. It wasn’t easy.
Of course, most of the time I opened with the whole “I passed out during the blood test” story, which was a great ice-breaker. I could go over most of the places I had been to, talk about each family, and still mess up a word or two in German over dinner.
It had been difficult leaving the first time. It was nearly impossible the second time because this was not only saying goodbye to them, it was starting to say goodbye to Germany.
Next was a train ride back to family #1, the Gaths. This was the family that had been so patient with me as I slowly got a grasp of basic German. And I mean basic.
Six months later, I came back into their home and we were able to speak (mostly) without the German-English dictionary. The Gaths had loaned me their German-English dictionary and I returned it to them, having used it less and less. I could now talk with my host parents, who spoke no English, and fill them in on what I had been up to since we last met. I was also able to finally answer some of my host dad’s questions on my life in the U.S. that he had been wanting to ask the first time through, but couldn’t because of the language barrier.
He also told me what, to me, was the greatest compliment that anyone gave me the entire six months. He told me that I spoke German without an accent.
This struck me as odd at first, because while we think of those who learn English as a second language have an accent peculiar to where they come from, we don’t think of someone speaking German with an “American” accent. Or at least I didn’t as I slowly learned the language. But, learning the language in Germany, from Germans, I only heard how they pronounced it. Would I have had an American accent if I had learned the language here first? Probably.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t fluent. I had a ways to go to be fluent. But I felt proud that when I did speak German correctly, I didn’t have an accent.
Last but not least, I paid a final visit to the Höflichs at their vineyard.
We had a wonderful evening cookout and some of their wine. We talked about my time there months ago. They wanted to know about my other families. We relived the craziness that had been Octoberfest. They told me how the current year’s wine was coming along. I made sure I bought a few bottles to bring back.
And then, in a blink of an eye, it was morning and I had to get to the airport for my return flight.
My suitcases were not any lighter than when we had arrived six months ago – the wine bottles didn’t help that any. I had books, pictures, exposed film, and special items that families had given me to bring back.
Then it was New York to Washington, D.C. to meet the other IFYEs who had returned from their respective countries.
Finally, it was back to Ohio.
My family met me at the airport, which was good, because while I was gone they had moved.
So, my first evening back “home,” I found myself lugging heavy suitcases into a room I hadn’t seen before.
Something about that seemed very familiar and rather comforting.
This concludes my series looking back at my time as an International 4-H Youth Exchange participant to Germany in 1992. I hope you have enjoyed the experience as much as I enjoyed reliving them.
At the start of the program, they told us that this would be an experience we would think about every day for the rest of our lives. So far, they have been absolutely correct.